word craft


Le mot juste

What We See When We ReadThere is a new book out, What We See When We Read, by Peter Mendel­sund [Van­tage Books]. I have not read the book, only a review. But I shall read it. Because it tries to answer this ques­tion: When we read we see the words on the page. But, upon see­ing the words, what do we pic­ture in our minds? To quote from the [reviewed] book, “Words are effec­tive not because of what they car­ry in them but for their latent poten­tial to unlock accu­mu­lat­ed expe­ri­ences of the reader.”

This is of huge impor­tance to the writer, because it con­veys, cor­rect­ly, I believe, the enor­mous impor­tance of word choice in every­thing one writes. Think of such basic, com­mon­place words such as “hate,” “vio­lence,” “love,” or “friend­ship.”  Since every read­er pre­sum­ably comes to these words with a dif­fer­ent set of expe­ri­ences, each read­er will see these words differently.

There is anoth­er vital point, par­tic­u­lar­ly for those of us who write for young peo­ple: if we adults come to a word loaded with expe­ri­ences which let us see, what about chil­dren who one sup­pos­es have less expe­ri­ence, less vocabulary—how do they see a word?

My own view, for what it is worth, is that this reminds us that the way we con­struct our sen­tences and para­graphs is vital to help the reader—particularly the young reader—to  see the word in the con­text we—writers—wish them to be seen.

Famous­ly, Gus­tave Flaubert, the 19th Cen­tu­ry French nov­el­ist, sought “le mot juste” (trans­lat­ed as “the right word”) when he wrote. Well, yes, more pow­er to the word. Hur­rah for the sen­tence. But  … long live the beau­ti­ful paragraph—the ones that let us see the words as experience.

6 thoughts on “Le mot juste”

  1. In The Art Insti­tute of Chica­go part of the cur­ricu­lum is to require the stu­dents to write essays about their rea­son­ing behind every piece of art they cre­ate. The essays have to com­mu­ni­cate inten­tion and desired out­come. Although inter­pre­ta­tion can’t be con­trolled, stu­dents learn that they MUST have rea­sons and mean­ings behind their art. They must COMMUNICATE some­thing, even in com­mer­cial pieces. I think its an amaz­ing prac­tice. It teach­es cre­atives to do things on purpose.

    Thanks for the book rec­om­men­da­tion. Total­ly putting it on my Goodreads!

  2. Anoth­er love­ly post. Thanks for shar­ing, and your gen­eros­i­ty in send­ing out the book­plates to the non-win­ners. My fam­i­ly and I were excit­ed to get the mail and feel like win­ners now! We look for­ward to the new book.

  3. The small­est units of writ­ers’ build­ing blocks.
    And in the begin­ning there was the WORD.
    It’s also the name of the pro­gram I’m using to type this.


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